Trump claims ‘depraved’ North Korean leaders could ‘threaten our homeland’

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers a televised New Year's Day message. (screenshot from Reuters TV)

WASHINGTON — Branding North Korea’s leadership “depraved,” President Donald Trump told Americans on Tuesday that Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear missiles could “very soon threaten our homeland” and vowed a continued campaign of maximum pressure to keep that from happening.

In his first State of the Union speech to the U.S. Congress, Trump’s tough rhetoric underscored persistent tensions despite recent talks between North and South Korea that led to Pyongyang’s agreement to participate in next month’s Winter Olympic games in South Korea.

“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump said. “We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from ever happening.”

“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies,” he said.

North-South negotiations earlier this month have eased fears of war on the Korean peninsula that were in part stoked by an exchange of insults and threats between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump and top advisers have publicly welcomed the talks but U.S. officials have said privately that Pyongyang might be trying to drive a wedge between allies Washington and Seoul.

Attending the State of the Union address as Trump’s guests were the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died in June shortly after he was released by North Korea in a coma. “Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve,” Trump said.

But he offered no new prescription or specifics on how he intended to rein in North Korea.

The Trump administration has repeatedly stressed its preference for a diplomatic solution to the Korea tensions while saying all options are on the table.

But U.S. officials have said internal debate on military action, including the possibility of a limited pre-emptive strike on a nuclear or missile site, has lost some momentum in recent weeks after the North-South talks ahead of ahead of the Olympics.

North Korea missiles

Earlier on Tuesday, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea’s nuclear program had made strides in recent months but the country has not yet demonstrated all the components of an intercontinental ballistic missile, including a survivable re-entry vehicle that can deliver a nuclear weapon.

Air Force General Paul Selva also said he was confident that if required the United States would be able to destroy “most” of North Korea’s nuclear missile infrastructure.

In November, North Korea said it had successfully tested a new type of ICBM that could reach all of the U.S. mainland. U.S.-based experts said data from the test appeared to support that.

Trump refrained from referring to Kim as “Rocket Man,” a disparaging nickname he has used before. But he insisted that “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”

Trump said that among the witnesses to the “ominous” nature of the North Korean government was Ji Seong-ho, a defector who escaped from North Korea after being run over by a train while trying to steal coal and suffering torture and starvation.

Joining Trump’s guests in the gallery, Ji, who lost a hand and foot, now heads a group that rescues and resettles North Korean refugees.

Trump had recently held back on harsher language after having threatened last year to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea.

Pyongyang, in turn, has threatened to target the U.S. territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. Kim has shown no sign of willingness to give in to U.S. demands and negotiate away a weapons program he sees as vital to his survival.